By Marie Diane Perrault
Never have I ever followed my heart.
I understand that this might not be the most liberating or inspiring note on which to start an article destined for a journal with a liberating and inspiring mission. However, I will be honored to share a train of thought that goes from a flat note on an untuned piano to what I hope may be more musical. It is my belief that many young women go through a pivotal point in their lives, where their world comes to a screeching halt. It is amidst the delirium, the dust, and the din that a thought comes to the modern woman: “What am I doing, and am I doing this for me?”
From the outside world, the social commentary doesn’t stop: “Why don’t you give him a chance?” “Why don’t you tone it down a little?” “Why are you so sensitive?” It’s as if everyone has something to say about how you run your life except yourself.
Me, I like to think I’m competent. I have a Master’s degree in Theoretical Linguistics from the University of Toronto, where I spent hour after painstaking hour picking apart how can, could, must, and should work in French and how to mathematically represent them for my thesis.
Around the beginning of the pandemic, one of my professors passed. This was a professor, a very famous professor, of historical Romance linguistics. He had studied the history of French, Italian, Romanian—you name it. He even had something akin to an order of knighthood awarded to him by the European Union. He had contributed more to intellectual heritage than anyone I had ever known, and I’d like to think I have many more people to meet.
When I was an undergrad, I wanted to be his research assistant. Actually, I wanted to be a research assistant for the professor with whom he was writing a book. Unfortunately, this never came to be, and I took this very personally. I said several unkind things that I refuse to repeat, even in print, and I behaved very immaturely. When I graduated, I did not wish him well, although I did end up finding another research assistantship. That summer, I was presenting at a conference on the history of the titles, Madame and Monsieur in French, and I had to dedicate the talk and subsequent publication to him. It was the least I could do, now that there was nothing left to talk about.
When he passed, I felt it was my duty to live up to be the person I could never be in his eyes, or the eyes of the other professor, the friend he had left behind, the mentor for whom I wasn’t good enough. At the time, I was immersed in the history of French and the evolution of Latin to Romance and was preparing for a field trip to the south of France to study regional languages like Occitan with native speakers. I had it all figured out: I would fuse together talking to people, learning about their lives, hearing their stories… fieldwork… with theoretical and historical research.
Ah, fieldwork. You may hear it, reader, and think, “the grunt work of social sciences.” Oh, but you’d be wrong. It’s anything but that. The field is where science is born. Social sciences are born of socialization, and though we rummage through social niceties to get there sometimes, there is gold at the bottom of that river. But that was not the only heartbreak that summer. I broke up with a dear friend—a Spanish-speaking fieldworker—on the grounds of not unrequited, but poorly communicated, feelings and incompatible life attitudes. It was a messy, disgusting situation from which nobody emerged the better. This person too had contributed to my project on Madame and Monsieur, and every time I went in to edit the paper for publication, I felt my chest tighten when I passed their name in the acknowledgements.
There was a day when the grief overwhelmed me, and I had to excuse myself in the middle of class in September. When I returned, I was hardly paying attention. I hid behind my hair so the professor wouldn’t see. She droned on and on, a dull buzz somewhere in the back of my mind when suddenly, I reacquired the human capacity for speech. I heard, “Seventeenth-century Jesuit’s grammar of Nahuatl, an indigenous language spoken in Central Mexico.”
I wrote to her that very evening to look at that manuscript, a virtual copy of a turn-of-the-century reprint, but even so, somehow, the age of the book leapt off the screen. I was looking at the yellowing, wrinkled pages of history, at a record of colonialism and feigned exploration with an oppressive Catholic dogma looming over the near future. Once upon a time, I had been forcing myself to go to the library on Saturday and to church on Sundays. In fact, I still know most of my prayers in English, French, and Latin. Once, I had bottled up the critical need to question my elders and those in power to please them. I had long since forgotten my objections, my questions, until the opportunity for time travel suddenly presented itself to me in my very course. The call to action was clear, though ironic, since, at the time I couldn’t bear to hear a single Spanish song on the radio. Yet instead of contracting, my heart was expanding and beating at a musical pace, warm with fascination at the cadence of a slow habanera.
A few weeks later, I was at a virtual party with other members of my doctoral cohort. I had just entered the PhD program, and two of my colleagues were still in their respective countries—China and Mexico—due to travel restrictions. After some small talk, some colleagues excused themselves and eventually it was just me and the lady in Mexico. We spoke for a while and got to know each other, and then she casually mentioned that she had been taking Nahuatl courses online during the pandemic. I told her that I had been tangentially interested in the language, and she invited me to come to a session.
Within a week, I was reviving a language I hadn’t spoken since high school and refused to speak because of my broken heart, to study another language that I had only ever heard about in anthropology textbooks. All this was virtual on Zoom, so it constantly felt like a séance with a bad internet connection. Yet somehow I felt that, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “something Tookish” was waking up inside me, and I wanted to go see hills and rivers and forests and… people.
My colleague was surprised that I had come to the class, but she was cordial in her welcome, something I very much appreciated with my terribly rusty Spanish. Running through the list of social niceties was the possibility of writing a paper together someday—OMG! Naturally, I was eager to find a topic, but all I knew was Latin, Romance, French. What could we possibly write about? There was nothing being discussed in class, but in the networking and fieldwork meetings we had every now and then we never stopped talking about how much colonialism ruined things for everyone involved—and it’s true: it did. But nobody ever really talks about how people made do with the changes in their lives and whether there was anything among the mess that colonialism left behind that could be transformed from something painful into something useful. The answer came to me in a library database search on “Romance and indigenous language contact.”
On the Intrusion of the Spanish Preposition de into the Languages of Mexico by N. Hober
There it was, staring right back at me—my eyes could have fallen out of my head! I had a similar situation in France with the regional languages there, but for some reason that situation hadn’t fascinated me so. But why not? After all, I had dedicated so much time and energy to becoming that student studying minority Romance languages… but at the end of the day, what was I saying that I hadn’t already learned in a book? What was I saying that wasn’t just regurgitating what my professors had wanted me to say, and where was I even going with anything? None of my projects to date ever spoke to me—they were always about my trying to reach out to someone else and live up to institutional and societal expectations that I accepted out of intense social anxiety. Now, in the words of Rumi, it felt like there was light shining through the wounds of professional and personal rejection.
I’ll tell you what: I finally had something to say about how language tells our story through its structure, not just the words we use. Linguistics isn’t just about seeing who says what in which context: several branches of linguistics look at how words are formed and how they then come together to build sentences. Sometimes, it’s hard to tease apart what rules there are that govern word and sentence formation, and, frankly, I don’t think we’ll ever really agree on what’s the same (debates can get quite heated in higher academia), but what everyone seems to agree upon is how different languages are in the elements they use to weave a tapestry of communication, of thought, and of storytelling. Looking from this lens especially, Mexico has one of the most diverse, dynamic, and dichotomous histories of any nation state. It is true that it is often divided into eras: the Pre-Hispanic, the Colonial, the Contemporary, etc., but there is so much more nuance than that. Discrimination persists even in the eyes of cultural recalibration: even after a handful of revolutions and mixing European and Indigenous traditions and values. Even among populations fighting to make their voice heard, discrimination against an “impure” form of expression persists. That’s where I come in. So many young people are trying to reclaim their identity but find it increasingly difficult when resorting to the language spoken at school is frowned upon at home, and the home language frowned upon at school. How can any kid growing up straddling a multitude of different cultures and languages not empathize? How can any young woman told to shrug off her concerns not empathize? How can someone who’s lost their way, and lost so many people on the way, not empathize?
So, there you have it. I’ve finally bridged the gap between what I was trained to do and what I’ve never been able to do. Never have I ever followed my heart before, but now, I’ve at least got a motive. Now if only this pandemic can finish so I can go listen to some more stories, over the hills, rivers, and forests.
Marie is currently doing her PhD at the University of Toronto. She likes mille feuille as much as she likes beavertails, and Beethoven as much as the Gorillaz.